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That ’70s show

In a new book, journalist and MIT fellow Christian Caryl recounts the epoch-shaping political, religious and economic upheavals launched in the year 1979.
Illustration: Christine Daniloff/MIT

In some circles, the year 1979 might be best remembered for disco balls, loud polyester suits and other cultural detritus. To Christian Caryl, 1979 means something else entirely: a foundational moment for our current geopolitical order.

Indeed Caryl, a journalist and a senior fellow at MIT’s Center for International Studies, has now written a book illuminating the dramatic long-term changes spawned at the tail end of “The ‘Me’ Decade.”

In “Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century,” published by Basic Books, Caryl takes an in-depth look at five consequential events that have had lasting effects: both the revolution in Iran and the armed rebellion in Afghanistan, which gave life to political Islam; Margaret Thatcher’s electoral triumph in Great Britain, which helped steer Western politics rightward; the election of Pope John Paul II (in late 1978), which spurred opposition to communism in Europe; and the accession to power of China’s Deng Xiaoping, which helped open communism, or one version of it, to industrial growth. 

As Caryl readily acknowledges, “These events are very different, they’re distinct, and I don’t want to make it sound like I’m throwing them all in one basket.” But the common thread he finds is that all represented a rightward swing of the political and social pendulum, as part of a reaction against communism, secular modernization in the Middle East, or just left-leaning democracy in Europe.

These events, and their supporters, were “counterrevolutionary,” Caryl says, adding that they were “trying in their own ways to respond to the great revolutions of the 20th century. And I would say these five counterrevolutions together, that ushered in the end of communism and celebrated the virtues of markets and religion, very strongly shaped the world we live in today. Indeed, I’d go so far as to hazard that we live in a counterrevolutionary age.” 

Why 1979?

Caryl, a longtime foreign correspondent for Newsweek who now writes for The New York Review of Books, among other publications, began writing the book after covering the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and thinking about the convergence of late-1970s upheaval in the greater Middle East.   

In close detail, he recounts the events of Iran’s 1979 religious revolution, in which the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran was deposed and the Ayatollah Khomeni eventually emerged as a forceful and brutal leader. Today, with the same regime essentially intact, the existence of a fundamentalist government in Iran seems unremarkable. But as “Strange Rebels” underscores, Iranian society was in flux throughout 1979, at least until the seizure of American hostages at the U.S. Embassy on Nov. 4. That long standoff, lasting until 1981, helped consolidate the Ayatollah’s rule by showing the power his form of religious extremism could wield.

“I do think that chance and contingency play a huge role in history,” Caryl says, noting that events in Iran could have worked out differently. “I don’t think anything is preordained … [and] I’m not really a member of the ‘great person’ school of history.”

That said, he does note the way basic economic realities served as a powerful force, making political convulsions possible.

“The end of postwar prosperity is a big part of the story,” Caryl says. “You can see, all over the developed world, that after World War II [there] was an unprecedented period of prosperity and it lasted about 30 years.” Then, in the 1970s, economic uncertainty roiled politics in Great Britain, while the lack of growth under communism undercut the Soviet Union and its satellites, while leading China to adopt industrial policies. 

The revival of religious fundamentalism in the Middle East may not have followed this same template, Caryl observes, but it also involved the waning of the postwar order; in this case, it reflected discontent with the secular, modernizing, authoritarian rulers who had taken power after colonial powers left the region. Whatever the material conditions of the time, Caryl thinks, religion’s re-emergence in politics demonstrates the power of “ideas … at very important moments of history.”

“Strange Rebels” has been well-received by reviewers. A review in The New Republic stated that Caryl “uncovers new and vivid questions” about the era, while according to The Economist, “Anyone who wants to understand how this new world came into being needs to read Mr. Caryl’s excellent book.”

Future shocks?

Caryl’s focus in the book may be on the past, but he remains intensely interested in what the future may hold in Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere. For the moment, he fears, a kind of political stasis has set in. 

“We’re in sort of a holding pattern,” Caryl says. “The theocracy in Iran has pretty thoroughly discredited itself at this point, and lost its hold on the minds of many young Iranians now. But I don’t think that necessarily portends political change any time soon.” Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, he believes that “the West missed a very important moment of opportunity there in 2002 and 2003 to help the Afghans build a stable order.”

And what of the shift in economic ideology the world has seen over the last three-plus decades, toward unfettered markets and a diminished role for the state? In this case, Caryl thinks the global economic struggles of the last few years may lead to a modest swing back of the pendulum, but he cannot quite envision dramatic changes in the offing.

“I think we are seeing a revision of the free-market orthodoxy,” Caryl offers. “This whole discussion about austerity I find indicative of that. We aren’t necessarily subscribing to free-market orthodoxy the way we did just a few years ago.”

Still, as the joke goes: Predictions are hard, especially about the future. One lesson gained from studying 1979 is how difficult it would have been, at the outset of that year, to anticipate all the things that occurred over those 12 months.

Recognizing that, Caryl says, “does tap into this sense that ideologies do change, you can never rely on the orthodoxy to stay in place, [or know] what form political or economic change is going to take when the orthodoxy seems to have exhausted itself.”

So who knows: Maybe even disco will return some day.

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